Color Theory: The Color Wheel

The Ultimate Guide about Colors and How to Use Them

Color Theory: The Color Wheel

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Are you curious about the color wheel? Do you want to learn more about how colors work together? In this tutorial, you will learn the basics of the color wheel and get to know how to create beautiful color combinations for your drawings and painting. So whether you’re a beginner artist or just looking for some inspiration, keep reading!

Since ancient times, artists and art theorists have tried to develop color theories and color doctrines in order to create a system with rules for the application of colors. However, opinions are divided on the topic of how important it really is to follow these rules when creating art. Even without the color wheel, you can create great paintings, but it can be a helpful tool nevertheless.

The Different Color Wheels

There is no such thing as the one color wheel. Throughout history, different color wheels have been developed with different emphases. Before we take a look at the different color wheels, we should get familiar with the three color groups:

  • Primary Colors:
    • Red
    • Yellow
    • Blue
  • Secondary Colors:
    • Orange
    • Green
    • Purple
  • Tertiary Colors::
    • Vermilion
    • Amber
    • Chartreuse
    • Teal
    • Violet
    • Magenta

The color wheel is not a necessary tool for creative work, but it can help to come up with interesting color palettes that are both harmonious and striking.

Moses Harris’ Color Wheel

Moses Harris’ color wheel was designed in 1766 and emphasizes the function of the primary colors from which mixed colors are created.

In the center of the wheel, Harris documented his observation that mixing the three primary colors produces black. Today, this is known as subtractive color.

Moses Harris: Prismatic Colour Wheel, 1766

Moses Harris: Prismatic Colour Wheel, 1766

Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s Color Wheel

The color wheel by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, a visualization from his book Theory of Colours (Original Title in German: Zur Farbenlehre), shows both the primary colors and the secondary colors. Here, the complementary colors are opposite each other.

Goethe divided his color wheel into two rings: The inner ring describes human characteristics, and the outer ring the human mind and soul.

Outer ring: reason (red, orange), intellect (yellow, green), sensuality (green, blue), fantasy (purple, red).

Inner ring: beautiful (red), noble (orange), good (yellow), useful (green), mean (blue), unnecessary (purple).

Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Color Wheel, 1810

Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Color Wheel, 1810

Philipp Otto Runge’s Color Sphere

Philipp Otto Runge, one of the most important German painters of the early Romantic period, developed a color sphere in 1810. On the sphere, the three primary colors red, yellow, and blue are equally spaced along the lines of longitude. Between every two primary colors, also along the lines of longitude, are three of their mixed colors. The two poles of the color sphere are white and black.

In this way, Runge was able to visualize not only the mixing ratio of the colors among themselves but also harmonies in terms of brightness and darkness.

Philipp Otto Runge: Color Sphere, 1810

Philipp Otto Runge: Color Sphere, 1810

Johannes Itten’s Color Wheel

Johannes Itten’s Color Wheel is probably the best known among the color wheels. It consists of only 12 colors, three primary colors, three secondary colors, and six tertiary colors. The tertiary colors are located between a primary and a secondary color. In the center of the circle is a representation that illustrates the relationship between the primary and secondary colors.

Itten’s color wheel contains only purely chromatic colors and is criticized for being too simplified. However, this characteristic makes it a particularly good tool for beginners or simple projects.

Malte Ahrens: Johannes Itten’s Color Wheel (1961)

Malte Ahrens: Johannes Itten's Color Wheel (1961)

Contrast of Colors

The contrast of colors forms the basis for our perception of color and can start from the amounts of color, the hues of color, the intensity of color, the relationships of color to each other, and the application of color. Itten distinguished between the following contrasts of color:

  • The Contrast of Hue describes a composition of continuous, rich colors.
  • The Light-Dark Contrast describes different brightnesses and darknesses of a color.
  • The Cold-Warm Contrast describes colors associated with cold and warm temperatures. Warm colors are yellow, orange, and red. Cold colors are purple, blue, and green.
  • The Contrast of Saturation describes different color saturations.
  • The Contrast of Extension describes different-sized color areas.
  • The Complementary Contrast involves two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel.
  • The Simultaneous Contrast is created only when a work of art is looked at: The eye creates a non-existent complementary color. A gray surface appears blue next to a yellow surface.

Experienced artists always work with one or more contrasts, but even amateur artists may already unconsciously use them in some of their artwork. The conscious use of different contrasts can help to better capture the moods of paintings.

Functions of Colors

Colors can be categorized into four different functions:

  • Local Color: Color of an object, e.g. the red of a tomato.
  • Apparent Color: Color that is determined by (colored) light and/or atmosphere.
  • Expressive Color: color that is detached from external conditions in order to represent certain moods.
  • Autonomous Color: color that is completely detached from representational reference.

Concepts of Color

After sketching, an artist may have already made a decision about the color concept and a color palette. There are three concepts of colors:

  • Colorostic Concept: vibrancy, intensity, and saturation of many colors.
  • Monochromatic Concept: One color or different light to dark levels of one color.
  • Valeuristic Concept: Painting method with fine and differentiated color gradations.

Monochromatic Concept: Watercolor Forest Fog

Color and Light

Our perception and the effect of color on us are influenced by the interaction of color and light directly in the artwork. Depending on the lighting, objects, people and landscapes change their colors.

The artist decides on the location of the light source and can choose between natural light (sun or moon) and artificial light (lamp, candle, fire, etc.). The light source can be either inside the space of the artwork or outside.

The interplay of light and shadow can create interesting relations between light and dark. The artist can bring illuminated areas in the painting to the forefront of our perception and equally make other areas disappear into the darkness.

The Color Wheel Today

Nowadays, there are countless variations of the color wheel. Some emphasize the psychological effects of color, while others focus on the practical applications for artists and designers.

The most important thing to remember is that a color wheel is a tool, and there are no hard and fast rules about how to use it. Ultimately, it’s up to you to experiment with colors and find what works best for your artwork.

If you’re looking for a helpful online resource for finding harmonizing colors, I recommend checking out the Color Wheel Tool from Adobe. This tool allows you to input colors and shows you a range of harmonizing color combinations that can be used in your artwork. It’s a great way to experiment with different color combinations and find what works best for you.


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